BiSex & The City: Questions of Love and Hate

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This originally appeared in BCN issue 78, April 2006

Last night I spent an enjoyable evening sipping wine with my friend D. As the alcohol flowed, our conversation turned to the ever-complex subject of love and it’s shadow emotion: hate. It became apparent that D and I meant quite different things when we spoke of ‘love’ and ‘hate’, or at least that we tackled them in very different ways, and I was left wondering about the adequacy of my understandings of these most powerful of the human emotions. I had to ask myself the perennial question, put so well by Howard Jones all those years ago: What is love anyway?

A quick google search suggests a number of answers to this question. Here are a few of them:

1. Love is a brain chemical giving a high which lasts until body builds up a tolerance to it (estimates vary between 6 months and 4 years).
2. Love is an intense feeling of affection.
3. Love is attachment to another person.
4. Love is just a more acceptable name for lust, used to justify our sexual urges.
5. Love is an obsessive compulsive disorder.
6. Love is ‘acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being’.
7. Love = sex + friendship (according to sexologist Havelock Ellis).
8. Love comes in different forms: eros is passionate love based on attraction, agape is selfless love, mania is possessive love, ludus is playful love without commitment, storge is companionate love based on friendship, and pragma is pragmatic love based on what people will benefit from the relationship.

My search leaves me feeling a bit better about my discussions with D. At least I’m in good company in my position on love. I argued for something very much like the sixth definition, my preferred idea of love being ‘wanting the other person to do well whether or not it means being with me’. D argued for a version of love that involved more of a commitment or attachment (like definition three). He thought my proposed ‘selfless’ love was rather a disingenuous ideal, arguing that if someone I loved really wanted to travel to the other side of the world then I would rightly be pissed off with them for putting their dreams as higher priority than me. I countered that if someone wanted to pursue dreams I couldn’t share it was probably a good sign that the relationship needed to change anyway. D accused me of trying to be rational about something that was basically irrational (perhaps I believe in combination of agape and pragma?) I had to admit that when partners in the past have gone in different directions to me, the resulting splits have rarely been logical, amicable decisions to ‘go our separate ways’ but rather messy times of recriminations and even hatred.

Ernesto Spinelli (one of my new gurus) has a go at explaining these sudden shifts from love to hate when people find their relationship on the verge of ‘self-destruction for no discernible reason other than that one of the partners has expressed a desire to change some aspect of his or her life’. Spinelli says that the other partner often complains that their partner is ‘no longer the same person’ and that they would rather jettison the whole relationship than accept that the other person has changed (The Interpreted World, p.72). Erich Fromm, the author of The Art of Loving, explains this in terms of possessive love. He says that when we claim to love someone else we generally do not really love what they are but rather what they can do for us. We are threatened if they want to change, because their independence means that we don’t have control over them and they may no longer offer us what we get from them.

This seems a bit of a bleak picture. Going back to the different kinds of love it seems like this kind of ‘possessive’ love might be something to watch out for. It is easy to fall into, but isn’t the only possibility. Spinelli says that possessive love is likely to happen if we view ourselves as more (or less) important than the other person. If we place ourselves above the other person then we want them to keep confirming our position there and our importance to them. If we place ourselves below the other person then we can become very needy of the validation of the relationship because we fear that the truth is that we’re not really worthy of it. In both cases change is very scary.

I also think that, when people love us, we can become very attached to the version of ourselves that we see in their eyes. Different sides of ourselves come out in different relationships and it is quite intoxicating to be this beautiful, smart, funny person that our lover sees in us. The fear of losing that version of ourselves can be another reason why we are so threatened by our partner changing. We might have fixed our relationship like a clay pot in a kiln, including what they are, what they see in us, and the whole story of how we came to be and where we are going together. But that story is brittle and can easily shatter if one person threatens not to conform to it.
A good example of this is my first long term relationship. My partner went through a major depression and I grew very attached to the idea that he was a damsel in distress (albeit a 6 foot 4 damsel!) and I was the knight on the white charger who had come to rescue him. I liked the sense of myself as a hero who was going to save the man I loved and stand by him no matter what. Of course this was not a useful story to fix in place because it meant that he could never get better without it threatening what we were and what I saw myself as. Also, it meant that the hard work of being the hero could never take a toll on me without that feeling like it could shatter this fragile self-identity I’d developed and the relationship built around it. Happily we had enough friendship love alongside the more possessive kind that we were able to maintain a close relationship when he’d had enough of being the damsel and I’d had enough of being the hero. Perhaps it also helped that we both wanted to change at around the same time.

Going back to my conversation with D, we also mused on how it is possible to hate the people we love the most. In fact, our most violent feelings of loathing and detest seem to occur with those we’re in loving relationships with. D gave the example of a fight with his boyfriend that morning and I thought back to the feelings I’ve experienced following the end of intense relationships. The hatred can be almost soothing and quite addictive; I’m reminded of the Erasure song ‘I love to hate you’. The difference between D and myself was that he accepts these hating feelings as an inevitable part of irrational human life. I find it harder to see anything positive in them. They seem more like a fog around me which prevents me from seeing the situation clearly and empathising with the other person. The only use I can see for the hatred is that it points to the fact that I’m probably deceiving myself in imagining that the other person is entirely bad and blameworthy and I am some paragon of virtue who is justified in feeling such venom towards them.

I can see that it might be helpful to accept hatred to some extent: not to deny such feelings or beat ourselves up for feeling such a common emotion. Perhaps these feelings are an inevitable part of the grieving process when a relationship ends or when we realise that it isn’t quite what we thought it was. D suggested that hatred is useful because it enables us to detach from the other person. But I’m concerned that it is very tempting to respond to hatred by nurturing it and feeding it. It is easy to let it spark further memories of being hard-done-by by the person in question, allowing that to fuel further angry feelings, and to encourage fantasies of revenge or seeing the person get their comeuppance. I’ve definitely been guilty of fostering hatred in this way. D seemed to think that this was inevitable to some extent and that time would ensure that the feelings eventually passed. This is true, but the way that I would like to respond to hatred would be to figure out what it had to tell me about myself. I’d like to probe it and face up to what it said about me, rather than avoiding the issue and just basking in the comforting sense of superiority and rightness over the other person.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions of love. In past articles I’ve suggested that we shouldn’t draw such clear lines between friends and partners, perhaps advocating companionate love over all the other kinds. But I also wouldn’t want to erase the intense passion and highs I’ve had when I’ve realised quite how well my mind and/or body connect with another person. I can’t agree with Havelock-Ellis that love is simply friendship + sex. I have love which is just about friendship. I have friendship and sex with people with various degrees of closeness and love feelings. I’m also not too sure about the brain chemical theory since I’ve notched up well over four years with one person without losing the passionate feelings. I like the idea of multiple kinds of love but, rather than trying to define each relationship by the type of love it embodies, I think it might be useful to look at the various types of love at play in each one, watching out for possessive love taking over, or for passionate love with no pragmatic or companionate love to balance it out.

Please email me with your own definitions of love. I’d find it very useful to hear how other people answer these questions.